Social Science and the Intermarriage Debate

An edited version of this article was first published in The New York Jewish Week in 2004.

Since the National Jewish Population Survey confirmed the continuing high rate of intermarriage, it’s been quiet on the “outreach” vs. “in-reach” front. The Jewish In-Marriage Initiative is slowly becoming active. No new money has been added to the paltry funding the Jewish community devotes to outreach to the intermarried. As policy advocates search for support for their positions among a dearth of social science, Sylvia Barack Fishman’s new study, Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage, takes on inordinate significance.

Fishman’s main conclusions are based on a very limited sample: interviews of forty-three mixed-married couples who said they were raising all of their children as Jews, and four focus groups, each with perhaps eight children of intermarried parents. Any qualitative study raises interpretative issues. Which of the participants’ behaviors and understandings does the observer choose to emphasize, or even mention? Although Fishman says that the personal stories of her subject,s along with her analysi,s “now become texts themselves for a … broader … discussion,” only glimpses and excerpts, not the underlying interview transcripts, are available for interpretation by others. Double or Nothing is replete with comments suggesting that Fishman is not a neutral observer: at the lowest point she even implies that outreach advocates are “Christianizing.”

In a comparable debate, The Boston Globe recently reported that proponents of gay marriage were criticizing, as methodologically flawed and politically biased, social science research that purported to reveal significant differences between children raised in opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

My main concern is Fishman’s assertion that the vast majority of mixed-married families who say they are raising their children as Jews “incorporate Christian holiday festivities” into their lives, which makes them “religiously syncretic”–combining Judaism and Christianity–such that Jewish identity is not transmitted to their children, even though they say that these festivities have no religious significance to them. This central conclusion is not supported by the research itself, is inconsistent with other available evidence, and provides a wholly inadequate basis for the very dangerous policies it will be used to justify.

Twice, Fishman suggests that the participation of mixed-married families in Christian holiday festivities amounts to an affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. She equates having Christmas trees and Easter eggs in the home to “bringing the ideas [and] beliefs … of the Christian church into Jewish households.” This defies logic. When mixed-married couples explicitly deny that their conduct has religious significance, as Fishman acknowledges that at least some of her subjects did “emphatically,” and when their children say they experience these holidays in a secular, commercial, cultural, non-religious way, how can their behavior amount to an affirmation of a religious belief?

Fishman’s conclusion is inconsistent with other available information. In liberal American Jewish communities it is hard to miss mixed-married families whose behaviors look as–if not more–“Jewish” than the average Jew’s, with the added component of non-religious Christmas and Easter celebrations. It is equally hard to miss the many young adult children of such families who strongly identify as Jewish.

Last year the Network’s Essay Contest, “We’re Interfaith Families… Connecting with Jewish Life,” attracted 135 personal statements from such individuals. While contest entrants are not a representative sample, the quantity and consistency of their statements–all of which are publicly available for observers to draw their own conclusions–suggest a positive theory that mixed-married families’ participation in Christian holidays need not compromise the Jewish identity of their children:

We observe Christmas, not as the birth of Christ, but rather as a secularized, commercial experience.

We have a tree. That was all [my husband] asked for. He wanted our boys to appreciate the traditions from both sides of the family without necessarily identifying with anything outright Christian.

I dyed eggs and hunted candy on Easter Sunday. Mother never tried to bring Jesus or Christian theology into our house, only the fun memories she had of her childhood.

The joy of Christmas for [my mother] is being able to give her children gifts she has purchased with care. It has nothing to do with the birth of the Christian savior, and everything to do with … love, giving and sharing. That is the way I look at the Christian holidays we celebrate now, as well as a way to show respect for my father’s faith.

Fishman clearly has moved beyond the traditional equation that Christmas is not Jewish, so anyone who has anything to do with Christmas is not Jewish. She recognizes the possibility that, short of conversion, a mixed-married family can be “unambiguously Jewish”–if, in her view, their participation in Christian holidays takes place only outside their own home and is accompanied with explicit statements that the holidays are the relatives’ and not “ours.” While that is an excellent approach for mixed-married families to take, the boundary of acceptable conduct could be drawn more broadly to include families who say that their participation, whether in their own home or not, does not have religious significance.

This is a high-stakes disagreement. My fear is that we will now hear Jewish leaders saying that the “latest research” supports two destructive policies: that mixed-married couples who are trying to raise their children as Jews shouldn’t bother, because they won’t succeed; and the Jewish community shouldn’t waste resources on outreach to mixed-married families, since the vast majority are not “really” raising their children as Jews. My hope is that any responsible Jewish leader would insist on conclusive social science research on a scale far beyond Double or Nothing before writing off the new families of the half of all young Jews who are intermarrying, thereby alienating their Jewish parents and relatives as well.

Instead of arguing about whether mixed-married families raising their children as Jews should see a Christmas tree in their own home or only in their relatives’, rejecting the former but not the latter, everyone’s focus should be on increasing the Jewish engagement of all liberal Jews–including those in interfaith relationships. The real question about the transmission of Jewish identity in mixed-married families is not what they do around Christian holidays, but what they do the rest of the year. As one contest entrant said:

I am not worried that the sight of Santa will turn [my daughter] into an instant Christian. I have faith in the power of Judaism as a religion and as a way of life. Assimilation happens because what is outside, over there, looks better than what is inside. You don’t guard against it by building a higher wall between you and the rest of the world. What you do is make sure the life you have is irresistibly worth leading.


Thank you for visiting. This site archives my writing prior to November 15, 2018, including content footnoted in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future. To access my newer writing, please visit the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.